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July 13th, 2015:

Blair Horner: Big Tobacco And The U.S. Chamber of Commerce

By Blair Horner

The New York Times recently exposed how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying arm of Big Business in America, was advancing the cause of the tobacco industry around the world. The U.S. Chamber has been lobbying to block the efforts of nations to enact pro-health measures that seek to reduce the carnage caused by smoking.

The Times documented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s tactics in fighting against health measures to reduce tobacco use, measures such as smoke-free indoor public places, graphic warning labels on tobacco products, restrictions on tobacco marketing and increased tobacco taxes. According to the Times, the U.S. Chamber has been deeply involved in efforts ranging from Latin America, to Europe, and to Asia.

In some cases, the U.S. Chamber directly opposed health policies. In letters to those countries’ public officials, the U.S. Chamber has voiced strong “concerns” about such laws; even threatening that opposing the tobacco industry’s wishes could result in significant economic harm.

The Times uncovered evidence of the U.S. Chamber pitting countries against each other in trade disputes. For example, the Times reported that the nation of Ukraine became embroiled in a lengthy international trade dispute with Australia at the request of the U.S. Chamber’s local affiliate.

In addition, the U.S. Chamber has been systematically engaged in opposing measures in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that would protect countries’ sovereign rights to implement public health policies.

The Times quoted one World Health Organization official, “[The U.S. Chamber] represents the interest of the tobacco industry…They are putting their feet everywhere where there are stronger regulations coming up.”

While the chamber has local branches in the United States, it also has more than 100 affiliates worldwide. According to the Times, for foreign companies, membership comes with “access to the U.S. Embassy” according to the Cambodian branch, and entree to “the U.S. government,” according to the Azerbaijan branch. Members in Hanoi get an invitation to an annual trip to “lobby Congress and the administration” in Washington. In Estonia, the U.S. ambassador serves as honorary president of the chamber’s local affiliate.

Of course, to those who closely watch New York’s politics, the growing clout of the tobacco lobby and its allies comes as no surprise. From 2000 through 2008, New York policymakers took major steps—banning smoking in all public and workplaces, raising tobacco taxes, mandating that all cigarettes had to meet fire safety standards—that made New York the nation’s leader in protecting the public’s health.

Since that time however, the tobacco lobby rebuilt its strength. During the years 2011 through 2014, the tobacco industry’s political operation has strengthened. In 2013, tobacco giant Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris) topped the charts in lobbying spending in New York State.

The growing political clout of the tobacco lobby has paid off. Funding for the state’s tobacco control program has been slashed by half and now ranks 21st in the nation in terms of adequacy, despite New York raising billions in tobacco revenues and a huge increase in overall spending in the state budget. In addition, the current Cuomo Administration has advanced no new significant tobacco control measures.

Let’s remember that the tobacco industry is unique – it makes a product that used as directed, addicts and kills. And it has for decades lied to the American people and many around the world about the dangers of their products. When government officials get bamboozled by the industry’s deceptions, or capitulate to Big Tobacco’s – and their allies’ – political clout, people die.

The Obama Administration should make it clear that the tobacco industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce do not speak for it and the Administration should rescind whatever informal deals it has with the Chamber.

In New York, Governor Cuomo should stand up to the industry and expand the fight against the number one cancer killer in New York by boosting state support for its anti-smoking programs.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Six-year-olds in Hong Kong admit trying e-cigarettes, Caritas survey reveals

Danny Lee

Children as young as six have admitted trying electronic cigarettes, a survey conducted by social welfare group Caritas has found, bringing calls for tighter regulation of the devices and a ban on sales to under-18s.

“We now know that children can easily access e-cigarettes and parents just do not know what’s going on – and the government is not regulating it,” said Lam Wai-fan, a social work supervisor for Caritas.

Of 361 primary school children under the age of 12 surveyed, 3 per cent said they had tried e-cigarettes at least once. About 20 per cent said they knew where to buy the products.

Caritas recommended the government legislate against the sale of e-cigarettes, including banning sales to those under 18.

It also called for the labelling of all chemicals contained in the devices, while providing more guidance for parents on the side-effects on children. Caritas said schools should be mandated to deploy “preventative education”.

Dr Kelvin Wang Man-ping, an expert in public health and tobacco control at the University of Hong Kong, said that while no study had been conducted on the health effects of e-cigarettes on young children, concentrations of heavy metals such as lead were a particular concern.

Stephen Kai Ping-chung, chairman of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations in Kwun Tong, said children looked at e-cigarettes as toys and would not understand the health risks.

“Some e-cigarettes come with different flavours like coke, strawberry and lemon. It’s sweet and children will be more curious to taste,” Kai said. He argued that such flavourings could lead to addiction.

The government is still deliberating on whether to regulate or ban e-cigarettes.

A spokeswoman for the Health Bureau said: “Given the apparent health effect and hazards arising from the use of e-cigarettes, the wider long-term impact to young people and the recommendation of the World Health Organisation, we propose strengthening the existing legislation and prohibiting the import, manufacture, sale, distribution, and advertising of e-cigarettes.”

The Asian Vape Association, a lobby group set up by e-cigarette companies, previously told the Post that a government ban would be irresponsible without scientific proof, although it supported regulation of the devices.

“It is irresponsible for the government to prohibit personal vaporisers with no scientific basis,” a spokesman said.

“If they are worried about harmful substances, they should regulate them instead of banning them.”

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No E-cigs legally registered here: None passed the EMSD tests

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New tobacco control measures require further consultation

At a meeting of the health services committee of the Legislative Council on May 18, the administration proposed three new measures on tobacco control.

These include changing the prescribed form of health warning and indication of tar and nicotine levels on the cigarette packet, designating bus interchange facilities located at the tunnel portal areas as statutory non-smoking areas, and imposing regulations on electronic cigarettes.

Among the new measures, the proposals that the size of the graphic health warning sign that covers the cigarette packet should be increased from the current 50 percent to 85 percent of the total surface area of the packet and that the variety of the health warning signs should be increased from 6 to 12 kinds have become a cause for concern for the tobacco industry.

It is reported that the tobacco industry will be given a grace period of six months to comply with the new packaging rules. But representatives of the sector said the government has never consulted them about the new measures, nor has it notified them of the details of the new regulations.

In fact, the new measures would already have been gazetted in June had it not been for the objection raised by some members of the health services panel, who demanded greater consultation over the new policies with all the stakeholders.

Then at the request of the panel, a special meeting was held on July 6, during which representatives of the tobacco industry were present and gave their views.

While it remains open to question whether increasing the size of the graphic health warning sign on the cigarette packet can really reduce the number of smokers, at that meeting representatives of the industry said the tobacco tax hikes in recent years have given rise to smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes and created incentives for black market sales, which have already reached epidemic proportions in the community.

They also said if the size of the graphic health warning sign was increased to 85 percent of the total surface area of the cigarette packet, manufacturers would be unable to put on anti-counterfeit labels on the packet, making it almost impossible for consumers to tell whether what they bought is the genuine product.

Although various sectors of our society have already reached a consensus on smoking ban in public places, and the majority of the public are well aware of the potential health risks of smoking, I believe the government should still follow due process and fully consult the industry, listen to their views and find out their difficulties in complying with the new measures in order to ensure the feasibility of the new regulations.

Moreover, the administration has yet to provide any conclusive research evidence that can convince members of the panel as well as the tobacco industry that increasing the size of the graphic health warning sign on the cigarette packet can really put off smokers and encourage them to quit smoking.

After all, there are only three countries in the world where tobacco manufacturers are legally required to cover 85 percent of the cigarette packet with graphic health warnings.

Whenever the government introduces new policy initiatives, we hope that the administration can always consult all the stakeholders including the industry and our citizens and listen to their views, based on which officials can then strike a balance among the different interests and concerns of the various stakeholders and come up with a final proposal that is acceptable to all parties.

As a member of the health services community, I am a steadfast supporter of smoking bans. However, the fact that I am against smoking doesn’t mean I will turn a blind eye to any government attempt to skip standard procedures in the course of policy formulation, because I believe the government is always under the obligation to listen to the views of stakeholders before any new policy is introduced.

Since the new measures proposed by the administration are not a matter of great urgency, nor will they affect tax revenues, I don’t see any reason why the government should enforce the controversial regulations so hastily despite serious doubts among major stakeholders.